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Remembering the Sinclair ZX81

Taking a look back at the ZX81 - a tiny but very popular 1980s home computer.

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Sinclair ZX81 Computer
Sinclair ZX81 Computer. More

Low Cost

Released in 1981 — as the name suggests — the ZX81 was designed to be a cheaper and slightly improved version of Sinclair’s first computer, the ZX80. It proved to be a very popular low-cost computer in the UK. Like its predecessor, it was based on the Z80 microprocessor, and available ready-made or in kit form — I remember seeing regular adverts for it in electronics magazines.

Sinclair ZX81 Advert EE Magazine November 1981
An advert for the ZX81, in Everyday Electronics magazine, November 1981
Programmer's Mug Z80 Chip
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Limited Specification

In order to meet the low price point, the ZX81 had quite a limited specification. It had no colour, no sound, a membrane keyboard, and a tiny 1 KB of RAM as standard. Its Z80 microprocessor was clocked at 3.25 MHz, and it had an 8 KB ROM, which included the BASIC language.

The ZX81 had two modes: FAST and SLOW. In SLOW mode, the video output worked normally, but the machine ran much slower. In FAST mode, the video output was only produced if the machine was waiting for user input — which tended to give a flickery display.

Dreams of Programming

Despite its limitations, the ZX81 was still a machine that I wanted to get my hands on. After using the Apple II and BBC Micro at school, I really wanted to experiment with programming at home — but all I had at the point was a programmable calculator.

Nearly a ZX81 Owner

In the end, I just missed out on having a ZX81 as my first computer. My high school computer studies teacher was selling one, but a classmate beat me to it. Looking back, I think the membrane keyboard and limited specification would have made it rather frustrating to use. I ended up with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum instead, which had colour and sound.

Sinclair ZX81 RAM Pack Box
ZX81 RAM Pack Box

RAM Pack Wobble

My late wife owned a ZX81, with a 16 KB RAM expansion. She told me how she spent hours entering programs found in magazines, only to have the machine crash due to the dreaded ‘RAM pack wobble’, which was caused by the connection to the memory expansion being unreliable. When that happened, everything that had been typed in was lost. She also found the cassette interface to be unreliable for saving programs.


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Maplin ZX81 Keyboard Advert EE Magazine August 1982
The back of Everyday Electronics, August 1982: Mapin’s ZX81 keyboard add-on

Add-Ons

As with many other home computers, a wide range of extras appeared on the market for the ZX81. In addition to ordinary RAM expansions, I remember seeing one in the mid-80s which had 1 MB! Since the Z80 could only address a maximum of 64 KB, it would have involved a lot of paging. Maplin offered a range of add-ons for different computers. One of the things they sold for the ZX81 was a full-sized keyboard — and it was bigger than the ZX81 itself!

Conclusion

Several years ago, I was pleased to finally get my hands on a ZX81 — it was a gift from my wife. Despite being glad to have one, I have to admit that it’s not the nicest machine to use, and it doesn’t get powered up very frequently — it’s now more of an ornament.

Sinclair ZX81 with Accessories
ZX81 with ‘massive’ 16 KB RAM expansion, power supply, cassettes and BASIC manual. More

Do you have memories of using the ZX81?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Related Articles

Memorable 1980s Home and Personal Computers

Remembering the Apple II
Remembering the BBC Micro
Remembering the Sinclair ZX Spectrum

External Links

Story of the ZX81 (The Register)
ZX81 (Wikipedia)


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